Prophet of Lubyanka

My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual

by Aleksander Wat, edited and translated by Richard Lourie, with a foreword by Czeslaw Milosz
University of California Press, 407 pp., $35.00

Aleksander Wat
Aleksander Wat; drawing by David Levine

Western readers are familiar with the intellectual and moral journey made by those who broke with the Communist party after the Thirties. The Moscow show trials, the German-Soviet pact, the Czech coup d’état, the Soviet intervention to defeat Nagy’s revolution in Hungary, are leading moments in recent history and all are marked by further fallings away from the Communist parties under Soviet leadership. One may cease to be a Communist, but having been a Communist leaves ineffaceable marks on the psyche, and the intellectual view of the world is painfully dislocated. What has hitherto been a presupposition of thinking dwindles to a prejudice, one as serious as the belief that the earth is flat or that our fortunes depend upon the positions of the stars and planets at the moment of birth, and after the abandonment of communism it is as though we have been given a new world, a new history, with large features that have hitherto been unnoticed.

I once discussed such matters with a man who had left the Communist party some years before. He had a brother who had fought with the International Brigade and was reported during the war in Spain as “missing, believed killed.” As soon as the man I was talking to left the Party he knew at once, with immediate moral certainty, that his brother had been arrested for some political deviation—no doubt a deviation that could be given the all-purpose label “Trotskyism”—and executed by the Soviet political police. This sudden recognition bore on the question we were discussing—how could men and women who must have known that the show trials were frame-ups, that the Soviet regime employed terror and the threat of it against its own population, that Soviet history was a mass of falsification, how could they have boldly asserted that all these things were lies?

Further, it explained in some measure how men who were sane and apparently honest could go in for deceit on a vast scale. It wasn’t just that some men lied for reasons of state, or out of cowardice. Of course, there were such men, especially those who were members of the apparatus of the Communist parties and functionaries in the Soviet Union. It is rather that the power and charm of a world view transcended the claims of empirical and rational criteria. To choose a slightly absurd example: it was maintained at one of the later Moscow trials that conspirators had lighted bonfires outside the windows of Maxim Gorky (then in favor) in order to exacerbate his bronchitis, and that this was part of a web of conspiracy directed against the safety of the state and the life of the great leader of the world proletariat. There is no doubt that this story was repeated with conviction by many Western Communists. Once the world view was broken, by whatever means—the smiling faces of Stalin, Molotov, and…

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